When you go to a bank to get money out, you can only get money out if you’ve already got money in the account. If your account is zero, and you still ask the bank clerk for money, they’ll laugh at you and tell you to go away!

Now imagine you open your inbox one day and have an email from Michael Smith, someone you’ve never heard of before. He explains he is a colleague from one of your overseas offices and needs your help with something. Specifically, he needs about 3 hours of your time to help him prepare a report to send to his boss. Oh, and he needs those 3 hours from you this afternoon.

Most people would just ignore Michael Smith or tell him to go away. The reason is quite simple; we don’t know Michael Smith, we don’t even know if we like him or not, and he’s never done anything for us so why should we do anything for him? It’s exactly the same as asking a bank clerk for free money.


If you want people to do things for you, then do things for them. It’s the simple human principle of give and take, otherwise known as Reciprocity. And there are strong evolutionary reasons for why this principle is so influential.

It’s 50,000 years ago and you live in a cave with a few other families. One day you and your friend decide to go out hunting. You go in one direction and your friend goes in the other. You spend all day searching for animals, then you find a rabbit. You throw your spear at it and hit it. Now you have food to take back and eat.

When you get back to that cave you see your friend who went out hunting too. But unfortunately for your friend, they didn’t catch anything.

If you want to live for a long time in this world, then should you share your rabbit with your friend, or eat it by yourself?

If you want to live for a long time in this world, then you should share your rabbit with your friend. Yes, you will get to eat less food this time, but maybe next time you and your friend’s roles will reverse, and you will be the one who didn’t catch anything. If you share your rabbit with your friend, then next time they are more likely to share with you.

Reciprocity is a good survival strategy, and it’s also an innate part of human nature…for most people anyway. This is why sales people give you free samples before they ask you to buy something, or why little children suddenly start being so nice to their parents before they ask them for money. Most people are more likely to help you when you’ve already helped them.

Pay it Forward

The more people you are nice to, the more people will help you when you need it.

This doesn’t always require a lot of effort. Proactively doing little things to help people, or even just make them feel good, even when you don’t know them very well or even like them very much, means you are gradually depositing money into that colleague’s bank balance.

Simple things like saying “please” or “thank you” when no one else does, or spending a few minutes asking how their family is, or even saying something nice about them to their boss, are all big deposits that don’t require a lot of effort from you. Getting into the habit of being polite and friendly to the people around you means you are constantly making deposits with minimal effort.

One person I met in one of my workshops shared how just being polite to someone made his life a lot easier. He sometimes had to go into the office during the weekends, and to get into the office he always had to go through the security checks. At first, the security guard was very strict, and the checks took a long time. So over time, each time he met the security guard he made an effort to be very friendly and learn more about him. After a while the security guard started being nicer to him as they would stop and share how their families were. Eventually the security guard gave him no hassle at all, whilst for everyone else he made sure to give them very strict checks.

Bigger things like sacrificing your time for them, or taking the blame for them, or giving them more credit than they deserve, can also result in much bigger deposits.

For example, a sales person once shared with me how she managed to build goodwill with one of her clients and turn them into a long-term loyal client. Her client, in casual conversation mentioned how her son was at Coventry University in England but hadn’t heard from him in over a month. She’d tried phoning and messaging her son, but he hadn’t responded, and she was getting worried. This sales person just so happened to have a colleague who was about to go on a business trip to England, and to Coventry as well. So, the sales person asked their colleague to pay a visit to Coventry University and gave them the name of their client’s son. Their colleague went to the University, managed to contact the son, and the son contacted his mum straight away which made her very happy. This client then became an extremely loyal client and it was all because of the goodwill built from doing them a very big favour.

But Be Careful

Reciprocity works best when you give to people when you don’t need anything from them. As you start to build relationships with other people, proactively do things for them. As I said before, these don’t have to be big things, they can be simple things like being polite or just getting to know them.

If you do need something specific from them, and you haven’t managed to make any deposits in their bank balance so far, then always offer to do something in return, but be honest about why you are doing it. Honesty is another way of making more deposits.

Also, not every person will respect reciprocity. There are some who only take and never give back, this kind of person is called a “freeloader”. Once you realise a person is a freeloader, stop helping them because they will only continue to take and take and take. When your bank balance is zero there is no need to go out of your way to keep giving. This is one reason why it’s normally best to only do simple favours for most people, and to save the big favours for special occasions.

If you want to be surrounded by friends and colleagues who will always support you, and if you have a job that requires you to have great influencing skills, then always keep your bank balances positive. Here are some ways you can do that every day:

  • Make a habit of being polite, say things like “please” and “thank you”, make eye contact with people, smile at them and say more positive things
  • Give honest praise to others, recognise their efforts and share how much you appreciate them
  • Use your network to help introduce people to each other, sometimes a simple email or WeChat introduction can make a huge difference to someone else’s life
  • Avoid gossiping about others, this is a simple way of making your bank balance negative
  • Be honest about your needs, thoughts and feelings, this helps others trust you more